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The Feast of Saint Ignatius of Antioch
19 October 2008

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

Almighty God, we praise thy Name for thy bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present unto thee the pure bread of sacrifice. Accept, we pray thee, the willing tribute of our lives, and give us a share in the pure and spotless offering of thy Son Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Romans 8:35-39
Psalm 116:1-8
John 12:23-26

Today we commemorate Saint Ignatius of Antioch, our patron. For centuries saints’ days and the whole system of inflecting our lives with a cycle of feasts and fasts have been the way people have marked time. For me personally, this feast day will always signal my anniversary as Rector of this parish church. Today, then, I begin my first “second” of my tenure here. The next twelve months will be full of seconds for me: my second Christmas, my second Lent, my second blessing of the throats in honour of Saint Blase. Today’s second is, however, most special. We have journeyed together on our pilgrimage for a year now and I hope that we have laid a solid foundation for the future, a future built on relationship and trust, a future built upon those very things that hold Christian communities together. Indeed, this is nothing more than a life together sharing the faith of Jesus Christ, retelling the story of his Gospel, and sharing the Sacrament in which he is present with us, and which, by his very presence unites us with one another in love and fellowship.

As I told you last year, I had studied Ignatius’ letters several times in graduate school, but I never imagined that his writings, his thoughts, his looming presence would have such an impact upon my life and ministry. As I re-read his letters and as I looked at them again this year (yet another second annual for me), I have found in them a model for community, a truly Catholic model for community, and for Christian unity, that has practical value for us almost two thousand years after he wrote them. That model is the one I just sketched as my hope for us: a life together sharing the faith of Jesus Christ, retelling the story of his Gospel, and sharing the Sacrament in which he is present with us, and which, by his very presence unites us with one another in love and fellowship.

Ignatius, writing around the year A.D. 100 describes a model of Church not very different from our own. In his world, local communities led by a bishop and assisted by presbyters and deacons, gather regularly to retell the Gospel and hear the words of the prophets and celebrate the Eucharistic meal of Christ’s body and blood. These local communities, in Antioch and Smyrna, in Ephesus and Corinth, in Philadelphia and Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, and in other places are all connected to each other by the ministry of bishops and the knowledge that all share in the faith of Jesus Christ and all share in the same Sacrament. What binds them together is not that they all read the same Bible—for there was as yet no Christian Bible—but that they all know the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ that changed lives and altered the world.

Ignatius lived at a time when there were many different versions of Jesus’ story. Ignatius knew that people argued about the various interpretations of these new texts and sought in the texts justification for their beliefs. Ignatius, however, saw beyond mere text, mere written documents and demanded that Christians not divide themselves over the interpretation of words:

I urge you to do nothing in cliques, but act as Christ’s disciples. When I heard some people saying, “If I don’t find it in the original documents, I don’t believe it in the Gospel.” I answered them, “But it is written there” .... To my mind it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that came by him (Philadelphians 8:2).

For Ignatius the only document, the only archive is the Paschal Mystery itself, the life, death, and resurrection in which is contained the Gospel, the Good News, and the foundation of our faith and of our unity. We are united in Christ, Ignatius insisted, not by a text.

And from that Gospel, that world shaking community of memory, they all know the sacrament that Jesus himself gave so that he may always be present with his people and so that his people may all be united to him and to each other. And to this end Ignatius urged that the people “be careful then to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup of his blood that makes us one and one altar” (Philadelphians 4). It was his prayer and his exhortation that communities “Try to gather more frequently to celebrate God’s Eucharist and to please him. For when you meet with frequency, Satan’s powers are overthrown and his destructiveness is undone by the unanimity of your faith” (Ephesians 13:1). For Ignatius it was in gathering around Christ’s body, his risen body there with the people in the bread and wine, where true Christian unity is found. For Ignatius communities in far off places would be united with each other because they proclaimed the same Gospel (and not because they read the same text) and shared in the same sacrament.

Ignatius was firm on this point:

That is how unity and harmony come to prevail everywhere. Make no mistake about it. If anyone is not inside the sanctuary, he lacks God’s bread. And if the prayer of one or two has great avail, how much more that of the bishop and the total church. He who fails to join in your worship shows his arrogance by the very fact of becoming a schismatic (Ephesians 5:2-3)

Being in community is about being in communion. Being in communion is about worshipping together and sharing the one bread. Being in communion is like being in a choir “so that in perfect harmony and taking your pitch from God, you may sing in unison and with one voice to the Father through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 4:2). Ignatius tells us that “You need to abide in irreproachable unity if you really want to be God’s members forever” (Ephesians 4:2).

Ignatius vision is of a Catholic Church spread throughout the known world, led by bishops, gathering in love and fellowship and drawn together by the Gospel to share the sacrament of unity so “that we may be subject to God” (Ephesians 5:3). And this is the key, “that we may be subject to God” and not to our own private judgement. It is only in gathering in community that we can discern together the will of God for us and for the world. It is only in sharing this kind of real communion that we can cooperate with God in his redeeming work of love, of peace, and of reconciliation. And indeed, if you think you are hearing words that could be applied and shared with the leaders of our Church and of our own Anglican Communion throughout the world, you are. This past summer Anglican Bishops from around the world gathered in Canterbury to talk with each other, share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with each other, and to celebrate the sacrament that Ignatius knew bound us all togther in one Body. Bishops, representing local communities, brought the concerns of those communities to the attention of people from far away places. Bishops listened to each other and while they may not have agreed about everything, they gathered daily to worship and share Communion, the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

They gathered together in community so they might try and discern the will of God. But there were voices that were absent. One of our canonically elected and consecrated bishops was excluded by the Archbishop, although he journeyed to Canterbury so that his voice could be heard, albeit informally. Other bishops, however, mostly conservative bishops with very strict views about the interpretation of scripture, of texts, absented themselves because they did not agree with everyone who would be there. They excommunicated themselves from the gathering, they refused to share in the sacraments, making the choice to be schismatics. In the same way (now former) bishops, clergy, and people in several American dioceses have voted to leave the Episcopal Church over the past few months. To me this is all very sad, especially considering that the Windsor Report, the text in which the schismatics have so much faith, is silent when it comes to the Sacraments. Yes, the Windsor Report talks about communion among Christians having to do with the interpretation of Scripture, but not in sharing the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Have I brought us down? Is this too much bad news in a sermon devoted to one who knew the Good News so well? I don’t think so. It is a lesson to us that we must be steadfast in preaching and living a Gospel of inclusion and of love. It is a lesson to us that the Catholic way is the way of unity, of membership, of sharing in the Sacraments, and going out into the world as ministers of love. Ignatius teaches us that in gathering together, in being a diverse communion from all across the known world, we have the possibility of being changed by God into his servants and united to him for ever. He wrote, “You must have one prayer, one petition, one mind, one hope, dominated by love and unsullied joy—that means you must have Jesus Christ” (Magnesians 7:1).

Ignatius gives us a model of community that we can follow, one that we try to practice here in this place dedicated to him. I pray that he would be proud of our Catholic witness, our loyalty to our Bishop and to our Church, our regular celebration of the Sacraments, and most of all in our faith and practice of love. Indeed Ignatius knew the truth: “Faith, the beginning, and love, the end. And when the two are united you have God, and everything else that has to do with real goodness is dependent on him” (Ephesians 14:1).

Andrew Charles Blume+
Theresa of Avila, 15 October 2008

©2008 Andrew Charles Blume

 

All quotations from Ignatius’ letters are from the edition of Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970).

For more about Saint Ignatius of Antioch click here.